Archive for July, 2011

Charles Kenny’s* book Getting Better has received quite a bit of attention in recent months, at least in part because Bill Gates decided to review it in the Wall Street Journal (up until that point, I thought I had a chance of outranking Charles on Amazon, but Gates’ positive review buried that hope).  The reviews that I have seen (for example here, here and here) cast the book as a counterweight to the literature of failure that surrounds development, and indeed Getting Better is just that.  It’s hard to write an optimistic book about a project as difficult as development without coming off as glib, especially when it is all too easy to write another treatise that critiques development in a less than constructive way.  It’s a challenge akin to that facing the popular musician – it’s really, really hard to convey joy in a way that moves the listener (I’m convinced this ability is the basis of Bjork’s career), but fairly easy to go hide in the basement for a few weeks, pick up a nice pallor, tune everything a step down, put on a t-shirt one size too small and whine about the girlfriend/boyfriend that left you.

Much of the critical literature on development raises important challenges to development practice and thought, but does so in a manner that makes addressing those challenges very difficult (if not intentionally impossible).  For example, deep (and important) criticisms of development anchored in poststructural understandings of discourse, meaning and power (for example, Escobar’s Encountering Development and Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine) emerged in the early and mid-1990s, but their critical power was not tied in any way to a next step . . . which eventually undermined the critical project.  It also served to isolate academic development studies from the world of development practice in many ways, as even those working in development who were open to these criticisms could find no way forward from them.  Tearing something down is a lot easier than building something new from the rubble.

While Getting Better does not reconstruct development, its realistically grounded optimism provides what I see as a potential foundation for a productive rethinking of efforts to help the global poor.  Kenny chooses to begin from a realistic grounding, where Chapters 2 and 3 of the book present us with the bad news (global incomes are diverging) and the worse news (nobody is really sure how to raise growth rates).  But, Kenny answers these challenges in three chapters that illustrate ways in which things have been improving over the past several decades, from sticking a fork in the often-overused idea of poverty traps to the recognition that quality of life measures appear to be converging globally.  This is more than a counterweight to the literature of failure – this book is a counterweight to the literature of development that all-too-blindly worships growth as its engine.  In this book, Kenny clearly argues that growth-centric approaches to development don’t seem to be having the intended results, and growth itself is extraordinarily difficult to stimulate . . . and despite these facts, things are improving in many, many places around the world.   This opens the door to question the directionality of causality in the development and growth relationship: is growth the cause of development, or its effect?

Here, I am pushing Kenny’s argument beyond its overtly stated purpose in the book. Kenny doesn’t overtly take on a core issue at the heart of development-as-growth: can we really guarantee 3% growth per year for everyone forever?  But at the same time, he illustrates that development is occurring in contexts where there is little or no growth, suggesting that we can delink the goal of development from the impossibility of endless growth.  If ever there were a reason to be an optimist about the potential for development, this delinking is it.

I feel a great kinship with this book, in its realistic optimism.  I also like the lurking sense of development as a catalyst for change, as opposed to a tool or process by which we obtain predictable results from known interventions.  I did find Getting Better’s explanations for social change to rest a bit too heavily on a simplistic diffusion of ideas, a rather exogenous explanation of change that was largely abandoned by anthropology and geography back in the structure-functionalism of the 1940s and 50s.  The book does not really dig into “the social” in general.  For example, Kenny’s discussion of randomized control trials for development (RCT4D), like the RCT4D literature itself, is preoccupied with “what works” without really diving into an exploration of why the things that worked played out so well.  To be fair to Kenny, his discussion was not focused on explanation, but on illustrating that some things that we do in development do indeed make things better in some measurable way.  I also know that he understands that “what works” is context specific . . . as indeed is the very definition of “works.”  However, why these things work and how people define success is critical to understanding if they are just anecdotes of success in a sea of failure, or replicable findings that can help us to better address the needs of the global poor.  In short, without an exploration of social process, it is not clear from these examples and this discussion that things are really getting better.

An analogy to illustrate my point – while we have very good data on rainfall over the past several decades in many parts of West Africa that illustrate a clear downward trend in overall precipitation, and some worrying shifts in the rainy seasons (at least in Ghana), we do not yet have a strong handle on the particular climate dynamics that are producing these trends.  As a result, we cannot say for certain that the trend of the past few decades will continue into the future – because we do not understand the underlying mechanics, all we can do is say that it seems likely, given the past few decades, that this trend will continue into the future.  This problem suggests a need to dig into such areas as atmospheric physics, ocean circulation, and land cover change to try to identify the underlying drivers of these observed changes to better understand the future pathways of this trend.  In Getting Better (and indeed in the larger RCT4D literature), we have a lot of trends (things that work), but little by way of underlying causes that might help us to understand why these things worked, whether they will work elsewhere, or if they will work in the same places in the future.

In the end, I think Getting Better is an important counterweight to both the literature of failure and a narrowly framed idea of development-as-growth.  My minor grumbles amount to a wish that this counterweight was heavier.  It is most certainly worth reading, and it is my hope that its readers will take the book as a hopeful launching point for further explorations of how we might actually achieve an end to global poverty.


*Full disclosure: I know Charles, and have had coffee with him in his office discussing his book and mine.  If you think that somehow that has swayed my reading of Getting Better, well, factor that into your interpretation of my review.

I blog about a range of things here – mostly environment, globalization and development.  As a result, I have more than a passing interest in various global markets: food, carbon, and various natural resources.  I’m also interested in the financial products being generated in these markets, and the ways in which they might impact the Global South.  So I’ve had a tangential interest in the mortgage markets, if only because that particular financial swamp is so deep and murky that it remains an anchor on major lenders, which in turn contrains their lending activities and therefore influences these global markets.  But I never really thought about the mortgage debacle as something that mattered in my financial portfolio – after all, my wife and I have excellent credit, have never missed a mortgage payment, and have only ever refinanced to lower our rate.  We were supposed to be the model borrowers.

Yet somehow, in the fall of 2008, my wife and I became embroiled in some sort of shenanigans during a refinance of our mortgage with AME Financial.  I did not know about these issues until a few days ago, when our current effort to refinance turned over the rock under which they were hidden.  So what follows is one person’s account of how a mortgage can go weirdly wrong, even when you are diligently reading the documents and asking questions all along the way:

Recently, in an effort to take advantage of the really low rates, my wife and I initiated a refinance of our house.  We were looking at a very good rate – 4.5% without buying points, and 4.375% if we bought a point.  This would have lowered our monthly payment significantly, so much that it made seeking a refinance a no-brainer.  We shopped around and settled on a mortgage broker that we felt comfortable with, and proceeded to move on the paperwork.  Everything was going smoothly (though I must say, refinancing now is quite different than before the crash – the sheer volume of supporting documentation required is huge), when suddenly I received an email from my broker, asking me to call him.  When I got him on the line, he was very apologetic, but told me that their analyst had found something that was going to be a problem.

Basically, the analyst found that my previous originator (AME Financial) had prepaid the private mortgage insurance (PMI) on our loan.  AME Financial had given us a somewhat higher rate and then covered our PMI in the form of (to quote our current mortgage broker) ‘single premium lender paid MI’.  In his words:

Two of the most common ways of paying PMI is monthly or single premium.  Should the borrower wish for the lender to cover the entire PMI in one shot (single premium), the lender will usually up the interest rate by 1/8th or 1/4th of a point and then cover the PMI for the borrower.  The advantage that this brings to the borrower is that they don’t have to pay monthly PMI, but at the same time they take a little bit of a higher rate over the term of the loan.

Now, this is all well and good . . . except that AME Financial never told us that they were doing a single premium lender paid MI on our loan.  That was NOT disclosed to us at any time, and our HUD-1 form does not list any prepaid MI.  Instead, we received a PMI document outlining the payments we would have to make until we were below 80% LTV or until April 2010, whichever come first.  It was an odd document, though, as our amortization schedule seemed to suggest we were under the 80% loan-to-value required to avoid PMI before the first payment.  At closing, we were told that we could write whoever serviced our mortgage immediately, reference the schedule, and demand the removal of PMI.  This does not explain how, on a loan where someone did a single premium lender paid MI, and where the amortization schedule suggested we were below 80% LTV we were being charged PMI, of course.  If I made one mistake in this process, it was failing to grasp that I was being charged PMI on a loan whose documentation suggested there was no need for PMI.  I am still kicking myself, as I have no idea how I missed this.

As you might imagine, we immediately started calling in to have the PMI taken off.  Sadly, our mortgage was purchased by Countrywide, who was already a part of Bank of America.  In late November 2008, I called them up, and asked to have the PMI taken off.  They argued that the LTV was above 80%.  I noted that the amortization schedule they had just purchased as a part of a larger contract had the LTV below 80%.  They claimed they would have to dig up the documents to support this, and then stopped returning calls.  Then they disappeared completely, as Bank of America seemed to take over servicing directly.  It wasn’t until well into the spring that we figured out who to call at Bank of America about the PMI, since we still made payments to “Countrywide” for a while.  Once we sorted this out, and I got someone on the phone, I referenced our schedule, and they claimed the LTV was above 80%.  At first they just told me to call back, then they started arguing that there were three different values for the house listed in the mortgage paperwork (I have not seen any evidence for this).  I reminded them that a) I did not have evidence for this claim and b) this wasn’t actually my problem – the PMI document was a part of a signed contract, and if they didn’t like the terms in that document they probably should not have purchased my loan.  Bank of America rejected my efforts to have PMI taken off until April 2010, when we lawyered up and had our attorney send BoA a letter demanding the removal of PMI per our mortgage documents.  Suddenly, the PMI came off the loan.  I don’t regret waiting to lawyer up.  My father was an attorney who lamented the overuse of the judicial system, and the only reason we did in the end was to ensure our PMI came off in accordance with our loan documents, as it seemed BoA was willing to ignore them otherwise.

Now, we were owed over $3000 in PMI that we should never have been paying, and that made me furious . . . but I am the son of a lawyer, and I know how much litigation costs.  Had I sued BoA, I probably could have won a moral victory and broken even (legal fees would have more or less eaten up any award).  So I let it go, chalking it up to the horrific circus that was the collapse of our economy in the fall of 2008, and the chaos that ensued as the banks picked up the pieces.

However, with the information I now have, I am newly enraged.  This is a nest of a mess.

  • Clearly, AME Financial did something shaky – we had an appraisal that put us below 80% LTV, which meant we did not need PMI.  Yet somehow they originated our loan with what probably was a slightly higher rate, and did a single premium lender paid MI without disclosing any of this to us.  That is bad enough, but it raises another question for me: to whom did they pay this MI? Did they just fabricate the single premium lender paid MI in the documents and charge me a higher rate, thus pocketing a better commission, or was there an actual payment that went to someone? Neither scenario looks good for AME.
  • If AME was the source of this problem, what was going on with Countrywide/BoA?  Why was it in their interest to keep me paying PMI, when clearly I did not need to be paying PMI?

I haven’t got the slightest idea how to untangle this, but it looks more and more like this has moved beyond the unethical and the incompetent.

Oh, and by the way, because of the single premium lender paid MI on my current loan, and because we are refinancing after less than three years, it appears that someone will have to cover that cost on my refi.  This is happening even though I had fulfilled more than my obligation with regard to paying PMI, and the refi I am looking at comes without PMI on it.  What does this mean?  It means that 4.5% just turned into 4.875% so the broker can cover this cost.  This increase in the interest rate, over the course of the loan, will cost us about $26,000 in extra interest ($208,037.55 at 4.5% to  $234,433.75 at 4.875%).  So not only did I pay an extra $3000 in PMI that I never owed, as well as whatever extra I paid monthly on my slightly inflated mortgage rate (probably about $60, or $1800 thus far), I am being hit with $26,000 more in interest payments over the course of this refinance . . . all because of whatever the hell it is AME did back in the fall of 2008.  $3000 isn’t worth the hassle, but $30,000 probably is.

Folks, if my loan is screwed up, even in this small way, I have to wonder how many other lurking “small” problems like this are out there.  No, people in my position won’t lose their houses, but this is still a drag on the economy.  $30,000 could set up my kids’ college funds.  $30,000 could be used on home renovations that put contractors to work and add value to the property.  Instead, this money has evaporated into someone’s pocket, and will continue to do so for the next 30 years.

Anyone with ideas on how to get any of this back, let me know.  Seriously.  I am in the mood to make someone’s life difficult.

A number of folks have contacted me asking for a post that discusses how we might address the rapidly worsening famine in the Horn of Africa. In short, folks want to know what is being done, and what they can do, both in terms of the immediate famine and to prevent this from happening again.

First, in addressing the acute situation right now: please understand that aid agencies are moving as fast as they possibly can where they possibly can. There are a lot of challenges in southern Somalia, and these political-logistical hurdles matter greatly because the only remedy for the immediate situation is massive relief efforts to address the acute food insecurity in the area. There are complex logistics behind where those supplies might come from. That said, agencies are already moving to preposition aid materials as best they can.

If you want to help with the immediate relief effort, send money. Yes, money. Don’t send clothes, shoes, or any other stuff. It’s hard and expensive to deliver, and usually the donation of material goods just screws up local economies, making recovery from the crisis much harder and prolonged. Look into the groups, such as the Red Cross and the World Food Program, that are on the ground delivering aid. Examine their philosophies and programs, and donate to those you can agree with. There is a world of advice on donating to aid organizations out there on the blogs and twitter, so do a little research before donating. Oh, and please, please stay the hell out of the Horn of Africa, as you’ll just get in the way of highly trained, experienced people who are working under enough strain. I will make an exception for those with experience in emergency relief work – feel free to work through your networks to see if you are needed. If you don’t have a network to work through, you shouldn’t be going. It’s really that simple.

The question of how we will prevent the next famine is an open one. In my personal opinion (which, incidentally, counts for exactly nothing right now), addressing the causes of this famine, and the continuing sources of insecurity in this region, are going to require a rather different approach to development than that we have taken to this point. In my book (Delivering Development – hence the title of the post) I argue that part of the reason that development programs don’t end up solving the challenges that lead to things like famine is because we fundamentally misunderstand how development and globalization work. We are going to have to step back and move beyond technical fixes to particular challenges, and start to think about development as a catalyst for change. This means thinking broadly about what changes we want to see in the region, and how our resources might be used to initiate processes that bring those changes about. As I keep telling my students, there is no such thing as a purely technical, apolitical development intervention. Even putting a borehole in a village invokes local politics – who gathered the water before? Who gathers it now? Who can access the borehole, and who cannot? If the borehole has resulted in the creation of free time for whoever is responsible for water collection, what do they do with that free time? The answers to these questions and dozens of others will vary from place to place, but they shape the outcome of that borehole.

At the same time, such a process requires redefining the “we” in the sentence “thinking broadly about what changes we want to see in the region . . .,” because it really doesn’t matter what people, living in the United States or anywhere else outside the Horn of Africa, want to see in the region. It’s not their region. Instead, this “we” is going to have to emerge from a real partnership between those who live in the Horn of Africa, their governments, and the aid agencies with the resources to make particular programs and projects happen. For example, we are going to have to use our considerable science and technology capacity to really explore the potential of mobile communications as a source of rapidly-updated, geolocatable information about conditions on the ground to which people are responding with their livelihoods strategies. However, this technology and data will only be useful if it is interpreted into programs in concert with the sources of that data: people who are already managing tremendous challenges with few resources. Information about rainfall is just a data point, until we place it into social context – whose crops are most impacted by the absence/overabundance of water? Whose boreholes will dry up first? Whose cattle will be the first to die off? You can see how even changes in rainfall are nothing more than catalysts for local social process, as the answers to these latter questions will vary dramatically, but in the context of trying to understand how things will play out, they are far, far more important than simple biophysical measures of the environment (or quantitative analyses of the economy, for that matter).

In other words, I think that any effort to really address the next famine before it happens is going to be long and extraordinarily involved – and is going to require the help of agencies, implementing partners, academics, affected governments, and the people on the ground living through these challenges. It sounds utopian . . . but it is not. It is necessary. To end up doing the Horn of Africa famine dance again in a few years for lack of ambition, or because of an unwillingness to take a hard look at how we think about development and how it does not work, is an outcome I cannot accept. We will be judged by history for how we respond (if you have doubts, feel free to read Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts and look at how the British come off).

After reading a lot of news and blog posts on the situation in the Horn of Africa, I feel the need to make something clear: the drought in the Horn of Africa is not the cause of the famine we are seeing take shape in southern Somalia.  We are being pounded by a narrative of this famine that more or less points to the failure of seasonal rains as its cause . . . which I see as a horrible abdication of responsibility for the human causes of this tragedy.

First, I recommend that anyone interested in this situation – or indeed in food security and famine more generally, to read Mike Davis’ book Late Victorian Holocausts.  It is a very readable account of massive famines in the Victorian era that lays out the necessary intersection of weather, markets and politics to create tragedy – and also makes clear the point that rainfall alone is poorly correlated to famine.  For those who want a deeper dive, have a look at the lit review (pages 15-18) of my article “Postmodern Conceptualizations, Modernist Applications: Rethinking the Role of Society in Food Security” to get a sense of where we are in contemporary thinking on food security.  The long and short of it is that food insecurity is rarely about absolute supplies of food – mostly it is about access and entitlements to existing food supplies.  The HoA situation does actually invoke outright scarcity, but that scarcity can be traced not just to weather – it is also about access to local and regional markets (weak at best) and politics/the state (Somalia lacks a sovereign state, and the patchy, ad hoc governance provided by al Shabaab does little to ensure either access or entitlement to food and livelihoods for the population).

For those who doubt this, look at the FEWS NET maps I put in previous posts (here and here).  Famine stops at the Somali border.  I assure you this is not a political manipulation of the data – it is the data we have.  Basically, the people without a functional state and collapsing markets are being hit much harder than their counterparts in Ethiopia and Kenya, even though everyone is affected by the same bad rains, and the livelihoods of those in Somalia are not all that different than those across the borders in Ethiopia and Kenya.  Rainfall is not the controlling variable for this differential outcome, because rainfall is not really variable across these borders where Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia meet.

This is not to say that rainfall doesn’t matter – it certainly does.  But it is not the most important thing.  However, when we focus on rainfall variability exclusively, we end up in discussions and arguments that detract from understanding what went wrong here, and what we might do going forward.  Yes, the drought reflects a climate extreme . . . but this extreme is not that stunningly anomalous in this part of the world – we are getting similar (but not quite as bad) results quite often these days.  Indeed, these results seem to be coming more frequently, and appear to be tied to a shift in the climate of the region – and while it is a bit soon to say this definitively, this climate shift is very likely is a product of anthropogenic climate change.  So, one could indirectly argue that the climate change (mostly driven by big emitters in the Global North) is having a terrible impact on the poorest and weakest in the Global South.  It will take a while to make this a firm argument, though.

On the other hand, it is clear that politics and markets have failed the people of Somalia – and the rainfall just pushed a very bad situation over the precipice into crisis.  Thus, this is a human crisis first and foremost, whatever you think of anthropogenic climate change.  Politics and markets are human inventions, and the decisions that drive them are also human.  We can’t blame this famine on the weather – we need to be looking at everything from local and national politics that shape access and entitlements to food to global food markets that have driven the price of needed staples up across the world, thus curtailing access for the poorest.  The bad news: Humans caused this.  The good news: If we caused it, we can prevent the next one.

We continue to scramble here – believe me, we are scrambling – the sheer volume of work taking place is staggering.  In the meantime, please understand that as bad as things are at the moment, the relief effort MUST be done right because a) things are about to get much worse and b) they will stay worse, at least until December.  We are trying not to sacrifice productive efforts to address the next 3-5 months in this region.  To illustrate, two maps.  The first is a map of current conditions:

As you can see, the two affected areas in southern Somalia (the Bakool agropastoral livelihood zones and all areas of Lower Shabelle) are highlighted.  These are currently the only places where we have hit levels of suffering high enough to be labeled famine.  Everywhere labeled “emergency” is pretty dire, but not a famine.  Unfortunately, this situation has acquired momentum – as FEWS-NET summarizes:

The total failure of the October-December Deyr rains (secondary season) and the poor performance of the April-June Gu rains (primary season) have resulted in crop failure, reduced labor demand, poor livestock body conditions, and excess animal mortality.  The resulting decline in cereal availability and ongoing trade restrictions have subsequently pushed local cereal prices to record levels and substantially reduced household purchasing power in all livelihood zones.

In other words, there is little local food available, no real jobs to earn money to buy imported food, and the livestock are dying, meaning livestock owners cannot sell them off for food (and they are not so great for eating once they get emaciated enough to die).  This means that the resources people normally use to address challenges such as we are seeing in Somalia right now are being drawn down very, very rapidly – they are running out of things to sell, and therefore things to eat.  On top of all of this, we cannot get in to these areas with our aid – so we cannot do anything, at the moment, to stop this backslide.  The result is reflected in this map:

This reflects FEWS-NET’s projections for the outcomes of this backslide in August/September.  As you can see, all of southern Somalia will soon fall into famine conditions.  If we cannot get in there before then, our interventions will not be as effective as they could be . . . it is much easier to fight a small fire than to put out a burning house.

An interesting thing to note from these maps (I will post on this at length soon) – they show the importance of development.  Where we could do development work (Ethiopia and Kenya), we do not have famine.  Yes, things are dire, but nowhere near as dire as in Somalia, where we have not been able to work for two decades.  The fact that things are dire in Kenya and Ethiopia means that development doesn’t work well enough . . . but it does work, at least a little.

As of 10am Nairobi time today, the United States Government, along with the UN, is acknowledging the presence of famine in southern Somalia.  This is the first declaration of famine in twenty-odd years, reflecting the fairly high bar for human suffering that has to be crossed before an official declaration can be made.

The declaration is complex.  The full text of the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS-NET) statement is here.  But to summarize:

  • a famine is currently ongoing in two areas of southern Somalia: the Bakool agropastoral livelihood zones and all areas of Lower Shabelle
  • A humanitarian emergency currently exists across all other regions of the south, and current humanitarian response is inadequate to meet emergency needs. As a result, famine is expected to spread across all regions of the south in the coming 1‐2 months
  • FEWS-NET estimates 3.7 million people are in crisis nationwide; among these 3.2 million people need immediate, lifesaving assistance (2.8 million in the south).
  • FEWS-NET projections suggest that assistance needs will remain extremely high through at least December 2011

I think it is important to review what the currently understood conditions on the ground are right now:

  • The crude death rate (simple measure of the number of deaths) has surpassed 2/10,000/day in two areas (Bakool agropastoral, and all of Lower Shabelle).
  • The under 5 death rate has surpassed 4/10,000/day in all areas of the south where data is available, peaking at 20/10,000/day in Riverine areas of Lower Shabelle.  These numbers are horrific.
  • The prevalence of global acute malnutrition (GAM) exceeds 38 percent in 9 of the 11 areas where recent survey data is available – we consider 15% to be an emergency threshold.  Severe acute malnutrition (SAM) exceeds 14 percent in these areas – and the emergency threshold here is 2-4%.

The projections going forward are not pretty.  If, as FEWS-NET projects, we have famine conditions in play across all of Southern Somalia, historical death rates suggest we could be talking about mortality rates somewhere in the range of 2500 deaths a day at some point in August (though this is a high estimate, and a minimum number would be more in line with 700 deaths a day).  I have no idea what percentage of these deaths will be children, but given the extremely elevated under-5 death rates (2X to 10X the global crude death rate), we can assume that the answer is “a hell of a lot.”

The causes of the famine are complex, and FEWS NET reviews them in the link above.

We are trying – and we are all frustrated at how slowly our response is moving.  FEWS-NET’s efforts have been herculean, from data collection (see the picture below) to the organization of reports and data – I am seeing emails from these guys at 3am.  I was impressed with them before I got here.  I am even more impressed with them now.  FEWS is just one part of the equation, though. There are a lot of people who are not sleeping right now, and even more who have dropped everything else they are doing to support this effort. We are trying.

Measuring arm circumference for a nutrition survey in Southern Somalia, July 2011

Please follow developments at FEWS-NET’s site for this emergency here.  There is no better resource on this anywhere.

The Economist ran an article on Australia’s newest efforts to green their economy, this time by instituting a carbon tax.  The Economist has its own ideas about this, as do many other people.  Indeed, there are serious debates, even among those who think that climate change is real and human-caused, about whether market-based or carbon-tax-based solutions are best (or some other completely different alternative might be useful).  I’m not wading into all that here. Instead, I want to make an observation about politics, political structures and how we address climate change.

Australia is a democracy, but its elections work quite differently than ours do here in the US.  From the Australian Government’s Webpage:

Australia does not use the ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system (where a candidate can be elected with less than 50 per cent of the total vote). Preferential voting is used for elections to the House of Representatives. Australians must put a number against each candidate’s name in order of preference. First, all the number ‘1’ votes are counted for each candidate. If a candidate gets more than 50 per cent (an absolute majority, 50 per cent plus one) of the formal first preference votes, then they are immediately elected. If no candidate has an absolute majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is excluded. These votes are then transferred to the other candidates according to the second preferences shown by voters on the ballot papers. If still no candidate has an absolute majority, again the remaining candidate with the fewest votes is excluded and these votes are transferred. This process will continue until one candidate has more than half the total votes cast and is declared ‘elected’. This voting system has been used in Australian federal elections since 1918.

To help supporters order their preferences, political parties hand out ‘how-to-vote’ cards at polling booths. The preferences that flow from less popular candidates often decide who wins. Distributing preferences can take days or even weeks.

Proportional representation is used in the Senate. Candidates must receive a quota of the voters in state-wide, multiple-seat electorates. Preferences are also used in Senate voting. The Senate currently has 76 members, 12 from each state and two each from the two mainland territories. The House of Representatives currently has 150 members.

In a nutshell, what this all means is that Australia cannot be dominated by two parties – lots of parties end up getting people elected to both houses, which often forces the parties with large pluralities (but not majorities) to form coalitions with other parties to build a majority, and therefore the right to run the government.  So it is right now – where the Labor party was forced into a coalition with the Greens.  As a condition of their joining the coalition, the Greens extracted a promise to develop a climate plan . . . right after a failed climate plan brought down the previous prime minister.  If Labor was governing by itself, do you think they would be working on climate again?  Of course not – the new Prime Minister “promised not to introduce a carbon tax” during her campaign.

This is sort of a perverse mirror-image of the United States.  In Australia, you have a party that probably wants nothing to do with climate change legislation being forced into a serious effort by the structure of their government.  In the United States, the structure of our elections and government pretty much rewards nobody for working together and building coalitions, with the result a highly polarized government that can’t get easy, obvious things (like raising the debt ceiling) done, let alone address climate change.

Political structures matter, people – and there is nothing written in stone that says we can only have two parties, or that we should only have two parties.  However, most people don’t realize there are ways to make small changes that could bring about big shifts in how we do business.  Mickey Edwards (who spoke to my incoming class of AAAS Fellows back in September 2010, and was fantastic for his candor) has an interesting piece in the Atlantic on some of these changes.  The most interesting of these, to me, was:

In 2010, Californians voted to create an “open primary” system in which every candidate for a particular office, regardless of party, will appear on the same ballot, and every voter who wishes to participate, also regardless of party, will be able to choose among them. The top two will advance to the general election, even if they belong to the same party. Louisiana has long had a top-two, everybody-runs primary system, and Washington State adopted a similar one in 2004. Their voters have a much wider range of options—Republicans, Democrats, independents, third- or fourth-party candidates. If all candidates could get their messages out through free mailings or free television time, minor-party candidates would have a better chance of finishing in the top two in an open primary than on a general-election ballot that pits two major-party giants against each other and discourages supporters of other parties from voting for long-shot candidates.

Just the act of establishing an open primary would break the partisan and ideological chokehold on the general-election ballot and create a much truer system of democratic self-government. As a result, members of Congress would have greater freedom to base their legislative decisions on their constituents’ concerns and on their own independent evaluations of a proposal’s merits. They would be our representatives, not representatives of their political clubs.

This alone could create a serious set of alternatives to the two big (currently mostly useless) parties – and perhaps get us to a place where we need coalitions to govern . . . and can relearn the art of compromise at the heart of politics, and that we so desperately need to address the environmental and economic challenges ahead of us.

. . . ladies and gentlemen, I give you Pat Michaels’ absurd Climate of Fear blog!  I’ve already posted on what I thought was a remarkably problematic post from this blog, and I am coming to realize that addressing the mountain of garbage that emerges from this source could become a semi-full time job, and I just don’t have that kind of time.  So, rather than work through each post (and they all need attention, as they are all rife with misdirection, internal contradictions, factual inaccuracies, and what I can only call staggering ethical lapses), I’d like to lay out a loose framework for critically reading Michaels’ entries that anyone can use.

First, look for internal contradictions: In his post “Big Science, Big Government,” Michaels subtly identifies himself as a scientist (he obviously feels the need for that legitimacy)  by saying “My lobby, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) isn’t located in Washington, D.C., because its employees are fond of the city’s heat and humidity in the summer.” (Full disclosure – I am currently on an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship).  Obviously, he feels fine about advocacy from his position as a scientist, as he is writing opinion pieces for and now works for the Cato Institute.  Despite this, he sees no irony at all in arguing, in the context of a huge banner supporting AAAS advocacy for biofuels (which I have long disagreed with, incidentally), that  “The image [on the banner] was hardly neutral.  Backgrounding the corncob/gasoline pump is an image of a wild blue (i.e. pollution-free) ocean.  This was propaganda and public relations, not science.”

Well, technically he is correct – this was advocacy, no doubt.  But Pat, your blog is propaganda and PR, not science.  So why is this a problem for AAAS, but fine for you?  Either we are looking at a serious internal contradiction, or an ethical lapse around the failure to disclose his own advocacy.

Oh, and Pat, UVa is one of the “Public Ivies,” not one of the “Public Ivy’s.”

Second, look for misdirection: In “Voodoo Economics? How About Voodoo Climate Science,” Michaels actually rightly points out a number of problems with the last IPCC report (again, full disclosure – I am a review editor for the upcoming 5th Assessment Report of the IPCC).  Well, he throws a spurious temperature claim in there, but then this is par for the course on his blog.  He then constructs a stunning argumentative fallacy – he finds six errors in a report that runs several thousand pages in its entirety, argues they are all biased in the same direction, and then makes the argument that the odds of six errors in a report of this size aligning in the same direction rises to the .02 level of significance (to break out the stats).

Now, some of the errors to which he points require attention – for example, climatologists I know who focus on hurricanes and cyclones have long said that climate change would have an uncertain impact on these storms because their formation is very complex, and a lot of different factors that contribute to their formation were being altered by climate change – in other words, the uncertainty to which Michaels (rightly) points is the product of climate change.  Oopsie.  This is what we call misdirection . . .

Third, look for spurious arguments (and structures of argument): Aside from tiny internal fallacies such as I just described in the “Voodoo” post described above, the entire structure of Michaels’ argument in this post is crap.  Michaels does not address errors of understatement in the report – which, by his standards, are examples of bias in favor of his position.  For example, the Arctic Sea Ice is disappearing much faster than projected in the last report – so does this mean that the authors of that chapter are in bed with Pat Michaels and the rest of the climate denial crowd?  Er, no.  It means that this chapter was written with the best evidence at the time, and now we have better evidence.  When we start looking for errors of understatement, we find that this report was often far too conservative – and the number of cases where the estimates or interpretations were too conservative (i.e. arctic sea ice) outweigh Michaels’ pathetic six cases.  Michaels is cherrypicking the data (in this case, the data are the examples of errors in the report) to get the result he wants . . . which would get him slapped down in any scientific outlet.

Finally, look for evidence for Michaels’ real fear – that markets might not work perfectly, and that government regulation of activities that affect the environment might actually be needed to correct for the obvious market failures that are occurring around greenhouse gas emissions:  For example, look at the title of the post “Voodoo Economics? How About Voodoo Climate Science”, Michaels never actually makes reference to George H. W. Bush’s critique of Reagan’s supply-side economics – yet somehow it is in this post.  Perhaps because Michaels is defending that supply-side position against the threat of regulation and taxation?  This blog is a frequently updated proof that Oreskes and Conway were really on to something in their exploration of the anti-science movement Merchants of Doubt.  In a nutshell, they argue that people like Michaels are not motivated by real curiosity, empirical data, or scientific consensus – they are driven by a broadly neoliberal agenda that emerged in the Cold War and still sees itself as the protector of the American Way from the path of regulation and taxation that leads to Communism and other forms of totalitarianism.  Except, of course, that this is more than an argument about politics and economics – this is an argument about what to do in a changing world . . . where one group participating in the argument has its fingers in its ears and is shouting “lalalalala” as loud as it can whenever actual data appears.

So, read away – you can make a game out of identifying the misdirections, misrepresentations, internal contradictions, barely concealed neoliberal freakouts, and much more rare overt neoliberal freakouts as you go.  But look for all of these, and understand that Climate of Fear is not a source of information, it is an effort to obscure the problem in the name of a long-discredited political-economic agenda . . .

Just a very quick thought today.  After reading Charles Kenny’s Getting Better and skimming Owen Barder’s “Can Aid Work?“, I’m wondering if anyone else can hear the faint rumblings of something very important – here we have two people, hardly from the fringes of development thought, noting variously that 1) aid does not seem well-correlated with economic growth, and therefore a clear causal relationship is pretty hard to determine and 2) despite this, and in several cases in the absence of major economic growth, things seem to be getting better in a number of places (this second point is mostly Charles).  In other words, are we seeing arguments against a focus on economic growth in development shift from the margins to the center of development thinking?

Those of us more on the qualitative social theory fringes of the field have long been arguing that the worship of growth did not make much sense, given what we were seeing on the ground.  Further, the emergence of the anthropocene (the recent era of human dominated environmental events) as a direct outcome of more than a century of concerted efforts to spur ever-faster economic growth, calls into question the wisdom of a continued myopic focus on growth without a serious consideration of its costs and potential material limits.  So if indeed we are seeing the beginnings of a shift in policy circles,  I am thrilled.  Nothing will change tomorrow, but I think these interventions might be important touchstones for future efforts to create some sort of development economics of finitude . . .

An interesting review of Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion and Wars, Guns and Votes by Yale Anthropologist Mike McGovern has gotten a little bit of attention recently in development circles, speaking as it does to ongoing debates about the role of statistical analysis, what counts as explanation, and where qualitative research fits into all of this.  I will take up McGovern’s good (but incomplete, in my opinion) review in another post.  Here, I needed to respond to a blog entry about this review.

On the Descriptive Statistics, Causal Inference and Social Science blog, Andrew Gelman discusses McGovern’s review.  While there is a lot going on in this post, one issue caught my attention in particular.  In his review, McGovern argues that “Much of the intellectual heavy lifting in these books is in fact done at the level of implication or commonsense guessing,” what Gelman (quoting Fung) calls “story time”, the “pivot from the quantitative finding to the speculative explanation.”  However, despite the seemingly dismissive term for this sort of explanation, in his blog post Gelman argues “story time can’t be avoided.” His point:

On one hand, there are real questions to be answered and real decisions to be made in development economics (and elsewhere), and researchers and policymakers can’t simply sit still and say they can’t do anything because the data aren’t fully persuasive. (Remember the first principle of decision analysis: Not making a decision is itself a decision.)

From the other direction, once you have an interesting quantitative finding,of course you want to understand it, and it makes sense to use all your storytelling skills here. The challenge is to go back and forth between the storytelling and the data. You find some interesting result (perhaps an observational data summary, perhaps an analysis of an experiment or natural experiment), this motivates a story, which in turn suggests some new hypotheses to be studied.

Now, on one hand I take his point – research is iterative, and answering one set of questions (or one set of new data) often raises new questions which can be interrogated.  But Gelman seems to presume that explanation only comes from more statistical analysis, without considering what I saw as McGovern’s subtle point: qualitative social scientists look at explanation, and do not revert to story time to do so (good luck getting published if you do).  We spend a hell of a lot of time fleshing out the causal processes behind our observations, including establishing rigor and validity for our data and conclusions, before we present stories.  This is not to say that our explanations are immediately complete or perfect, nor is it to suggest that our explanations do not raise new questions to pursue.  However, there is no excuse for the sort of “story time” analysis that McGovern is pointing out in Collier’s work – indeed, I would suggest that is why the practice is given a clearly derisive title.  That is just guessing, vaguely informed by data, often without even thinking through alternative explanations for the patterns at hand (let alone presenting those alternatives).

I agree with Gelman’s point, late in the post – this is not a failing of statistics, really.  It is a failure to use them intelligently, or to use appropriate frameworks to interpret statistical findings.  It would be nice, however, if we could have a discussion between quant and qual on how to avoid these outcomes before they happen . . . because story time is most certainly avoidable.